The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) today recommended the U.S. not publish research from two separate laboratories that shows how few steps it could take the bird flu virus (Influenza A H5N1) to mutate into a highly infectious and deadly form for humans. The NSABB is an independent expert committee that advises the Department of Health and Human Services regarding issues on biological security. In its decision, the NSABB suggested that the authors make changes to their manuscripts so as not to include the methods and other details that could enable replication of the experiments for fears that knowledge could be used for bioterrorism. While this decision is non-binding, why does this discussion and the ramifications of this decision even matter? If H5N1 can be transmitted from person to person, it could develop into a major public health concern and could potentially be the next pandemic with a much worse outcome than the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009. The seriousness of the situation has public health officials on edge. So it comes as no surprise that when several months ago scientists claimed to have engineered a highly pathogenic and deadly version of the bird flu in their laboratories that can infect and kill more humans, a fierce debate ensued on the usefulness and validity of such research. Scientific discoveries create opportunities for good and bad, and debating the issue from both sides is necessary for us to understand where our boundaries should be. In the long run, keeping back important discoveries that might provide insight for improving our quality of life might cause an even greater harm to society.
The goal of scientific research is to better understand the basic concepts of biology (e.g., why do we age or what determines eye/hair color, etc.) and along with it, the complicated issues of human biology (e.g., how do we get cancer, or how does a virus cause disease, etc.). Determining how a virus causes disease is a serious challenge for scientists. The money invested in research leads to high expectations of discoveries that improve our quality of life. Yet, scientists do not always have the tools to be able to complete their research under conditions that would mimic biology in nature. Consequently, scientists must engineer changes in biological systems to replicate the worst outcomes found in nature, which includes making pathogenic and deadly bird flu viruses to study. So the question we now face is to what extremes do scientists need to go to make great strides in understanding the biology of disease? Should we create a deadly virus in anticipation of the worst case scenario?
This is not the first time scientists have been faced with taking controversial steps to advance the understanding of biology for the greater good of improving our preparedness for public health risks. A heated debate erupted in 2005 when scientists from the Centers for Disease Control re-created the virus responsible for the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed a conservatively estimated 60 million people worldwide. These efforts were undertaken to improve our understanding of how such a virus became so deadly, and how we can prepare for future epidemics. Could terrorists have used this research to create a biological weapon from the Spanish flu to cause widespread death? Possibly. As terrorist organizations become increasingly sophisticated, so do their capabilities in increasing their arsenal, including developing biological weapons. Bioterrorism is a real and tangible threat today as much as it has been a threat throughout centuries of human civilization, beginning in the Middle Ages when armies lobbed diseased corpses into cities under siege. Some attempts will be more successful than others, but I would argue the most difficult thing about using biological weapons is that the result of releasing a virus as a means of terror, for example, is much more unpredictable than a conventional attack. An explosion of a traditional bomb, for example, can be simulated in conditions nearly identical to those of warfare. The release of a biological weapon, on the other hand, cannot be very well simulated because too many variables affect the outcome of the attack (e.g., route of transmission, reproductive rate, air flow, population density, dispersal rate etc.), which must be met for successful transmission and maximal exposure to the targeted population.
That unpredictability is why scientists’ recent research of a more lethal version of the bird flu virus should not be held back. Scientific discoveries always entail the risk of some manipulated organism being released from a controlled environment into nature; however, these important discoveries have the potential for benefiting public health advances, which outweighs the potential harm of those findings falling into the hands of terrorists.